Ronald McDonald
Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
Food

The Death of Ronald McDonald

At one point, the fast food mascot was more recognisable than Jesus Christ. What happened?
October 4, 2021, 8:00am

No one can pinpoint the exact date that he disappeared.

The 58-year-old always knew how to stand out from the crowd: bright red hair, a painted face, long shoes. In 2004, a small sample of children found him to be more recognisable than Founding Father George Washington and Jesus Christ, the son of God himself. But no one raised the alarm when he stopped appearing on British TV screens. No one wept when his cardboard cut-outs were shoved into the stockroom next to the spuds. When was the last time you sat on a bench with his cold plastic arm stretched stiff behind your back, a rictus grin frozen on his face? Ronald McDonald has been missing for seven years. 

In 1934, Ronald McDonald was born in the second-oldest hospital in Virginia – or at least, Willard Scott was. When he was approaching 30, radio personality and children’s entertainer Scott donned a wig and white gloves for the TV debut of Ronald McDonald, “the Hamburger-Happy Clown”. After Scott retired from the role in 1965, a number of other actors filled his yellow-laced boots, alternately apprehending the Hamburglar and visiting sick kids. In the UK, Ronald never seemed quite as popular as in the US, but you could still buy an official Ronald McDonald wristwatch for £2.40 in 1986, and in 2003, he starred in a couple of comic books that came free with Happy Meals

Today, on the topic of Mr. R. McDonald, the official McDonald’s website declares: “We’re afraid that Ronald McDonald’s [sic] no longer appears in McDonald’s U.K. advertising” before adding that he still “travels up and down the country” to visit restaurants and (ominously) “make sure everyone is enjoying their meals”. McDonald’s UK press office declined to elaborate on the reason for the clown’s departure, but clarified: “Ronald hasn’t appeared in any UK advertising since 2014, this includes any appearances in restaurants.” When pressed for an explanation, the press officer replied, “I’m afraid we don’t have anything further to add.” 

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The plot is thicker than a vanilla milkshake making its way up a paper straw. What happened in 2014, exactly, to make Ronald persona non hamburga? In 2016, McDonald’s announced that Ronald would be taking a step back because of that year’s global creepy clown sightings, with two Coventry clowns even chasing children across a park.

“McDonald’s… are mindful of the current climate around clown sightings in communities and as such are being thoughtful with respect to Ronald McDonald’s participation in community events for the time being,” read the corporation’s official statement at the time. But Ronnie had already disappeared from UK advertising a whole two years earlier. 

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Photo: Grzegorz Czapski / Alamy Stock Photo

Attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery demonstrate that while Ronald has left our screens, he looms large in our memories. One media man who worked on McDonald’s UK advertising for three years simply said, “I don’t fancy being sued by a clown”. Aye Jaye, an LA-based former Ronald who wrote the official rulebook for playing the character (don’t hug kids, pat them on the back) said, “Unfortunately I’m not allowed [to talk]”. The co-author of a 1972 rulebook named Ronald and How, which warned Ronalds to never tell children that hamburgers are made of cows, also declined to speak, noting that he no longer has a copy of the book after returning his materials to McDonald’s upon his retirement. 

None of the companies who manufacture Ronald McDonald statues responded to a request for comment, although you should check out this website that catalogues both the different Ronald statute poses and Ronald thefts through the ages. Another former Ronald actor expressed initial interest in having a chat but then never sent over his phone number. Should he disappear in mysterious circumstances, look for red hairs at the crime scene. (For legal reasons, let us state that McDonald’s did not kill or threaten to kill this man and has no plans to kill this man.) 

Thankfully, Guy Moore, founding partner of ad agency Creative Coalition, is happy to chat on – of all days – McHappy Day 2021. Between 2004 and 2014, Moore worked at advertisers Leo Burnett, orchestrating campaigns for McDonald’s as well as other clients. In 2009, he won a number of prizes for his poetic McDonald’s ad, Just Passing By.  

2004 wasn’t a great year to start working with McDonald’s – that May, the documentary Super Size Me revealed that eating McDonald’s all day every day is bad for your health. (In hindsight, the fact this was a revelation is completely baffling.) Moore says McDonald’s had “quite a serious issue” with “childhood obesity, lots of rumours regarding what goes into a burger” and he was tasked with reversing the fortunes of the company. “A simple brief… Oh, that little issue,” he jokes. 

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Photo: roberto galan / Alamy Stock Photo

Ronald McDonald wasn’t the answer. “When Super Size Me and all of that kind of thing came out, the last thing we wanted to be sitting next to at the dinner table was a joker,” says Moore. Although a rebranded health-conscious Ronald starred in UK adverts alongside animated “YumChums” who encouraged healthy eating in 2004 and 2005, McDonald’s ultimately began gearing their advertising towards adults, not kids. In 2010, a Boston-based non-profit began campaigning for Ronald’s retirement, arguing that he exploited kids and promoted obesity, arguably cementing McDonald’s adult-centric approach. 

“The whole thing had to start moving away from anything childlike,” says Moore. “We did a campaign, it never ran – in fact, I got laughed out of the room, to be honest – it was all about Ronald McDonald taking his wig off and taking his make-up off and talking in his dressing room about why he’s losing his job.” Yet though McDonald’s didn’t want to be this blatant about Ronald’s end, there’s no denying the clown was being disappeared. Moore doesn’t know why 2014, in particular, marked Ronald’s end in UK advertising, but theorises: “I think the English are just way ahead of the Americans.” 

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Perhaps 2014 was simply the year that McDonald’s realised Ronald couldn’t be modernised. That April, Ronald debuted a new look, swapping his jumpsuit for a red blazer and a bowtie, before he began tweeting from the company’s official account. Neither move went down well, with the hashtag #NotLovinIt trending in the US (cruel). A month after Ronald’s makeover, McDonald’s debuted a new mascot, the toothed anthropomorphic Happy Meal, Happy. He went down equally poorly, for reasons that become clear when you look at him.

But while Ronald failed to get with the times, the rest of McDonald’s was successfully modernising – in 2013, the company announced that it planned to spend up to $3bn (£2.22bn) on new and remodelled restaurants. Pop into one of its sleek cuboid restaurants today and it’s easy to see how the red and yellow clown doesn’t fit in with the dark wood and shiny screens. 

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Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2015, McDonald’s launched a UK campaign that reassured customers its fries were made from potatoes and its chicken nuggets were made from chicken breast, which is one of those sentences you really have to pause after writing, just to ponder, you know, ponderable things, like how exactly we got here and what exactly the deal with the 21st century is. It’s easy to see why the company didn’t want Ronald delivering the “our chicken is chicken” message, and thanks to the creepy clown craze, he hasn’t been seen on our screens since – though McDonald’s clearly aren’t opposed to general creepiness, if its current “Laughter” ad is anything to go by.

Ronald McDonald isn’t gone gone. Though he no longer tweets, Ronald McDonald has a US-based Instagram page where an abundance of tagged photos show he still makes regular appearances across the States – one man who recently met the clown excitedly all-caps-ed that he’d met “ROLAND”, which I really enjoyed. Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC), the non-profit that provides support for sick children and their families, is still thriving. You can buy a Ronald McDonald Funko Pop, should you want to (you shouldn’t want to).

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Photo: Gentle Signo

And Ronald still has his loyal fans. Gentle Signo is a 29-year-old business owner from Marikina in the Philippines who has around 5,000 pieces of McDonald’s merchandise, including a number of Ronald figurines, dolls, toys, and games, plus one wall clock. “I understand why some [people are] creeped out by Ronald,” Signo says over Facebook Messenger. “I think it’s because of [how] the internet is portraying him. I try to see the good side of the mascot – he shows up at charity events here in our country and gives toys to kids too.”

Signo would like to see Ronald make a comeback and “feels sad” that he’s slowly been phased out of McDonald’s advertising, although he ultimately believes Ronald’s disappearance is “understandable since kids these days have different tastes and preferences”. It is entirely possible that Ronald will have a resurgence – nostalgia is having a marketable moment – but according to one 2016 poll, Americans are more afraid of clowns than death itself. 

For now, Ronald is still missing, presumed hamburgled. Killer clowns and childhood obesity may have united to finish off the redhead, but his outdated vibe wasn’t doing him any favours – even children, a 2008 study conducted by one Dr Penny Curtis found, don’t like clowns. Ronald, like most clowns, is a mere mortal – destined to crumble into dust and fade into obscurity like all who have lived before and shall live since. Or, as adman Moore puts it: “Everyone has their sell-by date.” 

 @ameliargh